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There’s an art and science to . . . Telling Stories

Throughout history, storytellers have fulfilled roles as their community’s historians, spiritual counselors, educators, and entertainers. They engaged community members in thoughtful consideration of life–enabling them to laugh at their foibles, learn from the past, and make judicious decisions for the future. The settings for traditional storytelling varied from intimate gatherings around a hearth to large public ceremonies. Presentation styles ranged, too, from conversational to theatrical. However, storytelling was always defined as an event where a story was created in partnership by both the teller and the listeners.

Docents are direct inheritors of the noble storytelling tradition. Even if they are not telling stories, docents are presenting in the oral tradition. Docents establish relationships with tour groups; formally shape their interactions; improvise to accommodate the responses of their audience; and make choices about pacing, language, delivery style, and voice in acknowledgment of the drama of the event.

Given this shared tradition, why aren’t more docents making storytelling an integral component of their tours’? Whenever I have asked this questions of docents 1 usually hear variations on the same two responses.

One is that “stories are more entertainment than education, and 10 to 15 minutes of storytelling can’t be justified against the time available for looking at collections.” The other is that “only ‘natural tellers,’ or people trained in the theater, tell stories well. It’s not one of those things you can learn.”

Why use precious tour time for storytelling? Storytelling has “grabbing power.” Even in this age of electronic extravaganzas and microseconds, the words “let me tell you what happened” command attention. And, it is just this state of readiness and anticipation that every educator wants.

Storytelling also has “keeping power.” As soon as the storyteller begins the tale, listeners engage by creating images in their minds that correspond to, and elaborate upon, what is told. As the story unfolds, listeners begin to identify with characters, empathize with dilemmas, and become emotionally involved with outcomes. As the “plot thickens” and the resolution nears, listeners may even respond viscerally with a quickened heartbeat or a tearful eye. As the storyteller observes these responses, he or she, in turn, reshapes the story. This is how, together, the listeners and the teller jointly create the story. And, this is how stories can build personal relationships between listeners and a subject.

But, the big question still looms. Does storytelling have “teaching power?” And, can it teach what museums need to teach? The most important research being done in this area is by learning theorist Dr. Kieran Egan of the Simon Eraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Egan and his colleagues assert that listening to stories is essential to a student’s intellectual development. Among the skills Egan believes are acquired from listening to stories are:

  • a cultivated imagination;
  • an ability to empathize with others;
  • a sense of causality as it operates in stories and in logical inference;
  • an ability to reflect philosophically on general historical processes;
  • moral sensitivity;
  • an ability to make romantic associations with heroes and heroines or ideas;
  • excitement for seeing ideals and ideas being worked out through events; and
  • a hobby-like fascination with particulars, whether they are costumes, designs of pyramids or castles, stamps, or baseball cards. Storytelling has “grabbing power! “

While these skills may seem elementary, they are significant in that they serve as foundation skills used by practicing historians, scientists, and artists, as well as by students who are exploring the relationships between their lives and those that went before.

For those of you who find this rationale convincing, but are still uncertain about learning how to tell stories, there is good news! The techniques employed by effective storytellers to “keep” and “teach” their listeners are, in fact, very straightforward

If you look back at the description of how listeners become engaged, you see what the teller must do:

  • use strong visual language;
  • portray the characters in ways that listeners can identify with and react to emotionally; and
  • work with the plot to heighten the meaning and drama of the story.

While it’s true that some people do this naturally, most of us need to work at it. A few exercises are listed below to get you started. It may take a while to get the hang of it, but don’t be discouraged. It can be learned.

One last point of clarification. The unqualified benefits of listening to stories in general does not lessen the importance of story selection. Storytelling is not confined to folktales and legends. While they may be easier for beginners to learn, as the visual language, characters, and plot are in place, they are often harder to integrate into a tour with direct relevance to your collection.

To develop the right stories, look at the tours you already give. Do they contain a biographical sketch of an artist, a historical anecdote, the daily adventures of an animal, or a description of a scientific discovery? Each of these contains the germ of a good story. With a little elaboration and shaping, they can become your own, powerful teaching tools.

Twelve Exercises for Preparing to Tell a Story

If you are working from a memory or a well-known incident, you are ready to begin. If you are working from a printed text, however, read it several times until you have the sequence in your mind, then close the book and do these exercises.

Strengthening the Story Visually

1. Close your eyes and recreate the sequence of the story in very detailed mental pictures ╤ as if you just arrived in a new country and are soaking up every detail you see.

2. Get up and literally walk through the story as if it were happening in the room.

3. Find a fellow docent and tell the story. Then ask the docent to tell the same story to you adding more details, such as colors, textures, sizes, than you did.

4. Identify the three most important objects and the most important characters in the story. Describe them to a partner. Tell your partner to ask you five questions about the way the objects and character looked that weren’t included in your description.

NOTE: These are exercises to build your visualization of the story; you probably won’t include all the descriptions in the final telling.

Getting to Know Your Characters

5. Pick three words to describe your main character’s personality.

6. Identify three physical characteristics that exemplify these traits and experiment with using them as part of your telling.

7. Walk across the room as your character.

8. What are the first words your character says in the story? Say them out loud as the character would say them.

9. Answer these questions: How does the character change in the story? What is the major hardship, challenge, or obstacle he or she faces? Then, identify two emotions the character feels and express them in the story, whether by gesture, tone of voice, or posture.

Heightening the Meaning and Plot

10. Tell the story in three sentences.

11. What universal element does this story grapple with? (The rewards of perseverance; the confusion of adolescence; the difficulty of moving to a new place.)

12. Identify the most important moment in the story and tell that out loud very, very slowly. Experiment with adding a sound, or silence, or contrasting rhythms — e.g. fast and then slow — to accentuate the drama of the moment.

Storytelling Resources

The National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS) has the most comprehensive offerings: a large annual festival held in early October, a quarterly journal and a monthly newsletter, a catalogue listing all the professional storytellers and festivals across the country, and a mail-order catalogue filled with audio, video, and print duplications of stories.

Call or write: NAPPS, P.O. Box 309, Jonesborough, TN 37659; 1-800-525-4514

Yellow Moon Press has the most complete mail-order catalogue for audio recordings of storytellers, including traditional ones. Call or write: Yellow Moon Press, P.O. Box 1316, Cambridge, MA 02238; 1-617-776-2230

Don’t overlook your fellow docents. Those who want to develop stories for the gallery could share the research time and serve as valuable practice audiences and coaches.

For Further Reading on Storytelling —

Baker, Augusta and Ellin Greene. Storytelling: Art and Technique. R. R. Bowker Co., 1977

Barton, Bob. Tell Me Another: Storytelling and Reading Aloud at Home, at School, and in the Community. Heineman Educational Books, 1986.

Caduto, Michael and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. Fulcrum, Inc., 1986.

Egan, Kieran. Teaching as Storytelling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Tuchman, Barbara. Practicing Histoiy: Selected Essays. Ballantine Books, 1982.

Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Harvard University Press, 1984. Zeitlin, Steven J., Amy J. Kotkin, and Holly Cutting Baker. A Celebration ofAmerican Family FoIkIore and Traditions from the Smithsonian Collection. Pantheon Books, 1983.

Clare Cuddy is the Coordinator of Teacher Services for the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Prior to this, she served as Coordinator of Gallery Interpretation at the Baltimore Museum of Art, as a Program Developer for the Pacific Science Center, and as a Storytelling Instructor in the Pacific Northwest for over 10 years. Since 1985. she has been Vice -Chairperson for the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling.

Cuddy, Clare. “There’s an Art and Science to…Telling Stories,” The Docent Educator 1.2 (Winter 1991): 8-10.

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